By Cynthia Ord
I wanted mountains. After over a year of doing the nomad thing from equatorial climes, my highlander heart made a few requests. Snowcapped peaks. Alpine hiking. Wool sweaters. Fall foliage.
By chance online, I ran into Matthias and Uwe, co-founders of Coworking Bansko in Bulgaria. They also come from mountainous locales — Germany and Austria — and envision a nomad destination with both mountain access and €2 restaurant meals. They invited me to spend the month of September in Bansko to try out their new space.
I became their first “Nomad in Residence”.
I’m writing from Coworking Bansko, four weeks in. Will Bansko earn its spot among Chiang Mai, Bali, Budapest and Berlin on the nomad map? I think it could. Here’s why.
High quality living at low cost
Bulgaria in general is easy on the wallet. The capital city of Sofia has six of Bulgaria’s coworking spaces, attracting urbanite remote workers in the Balkans. Plovdiv, a smaller city to the east, is hailed as the ‘Chiang Mai of Europe’, largely for its lifestyle output.
Bansko is a tourism-driven ski resort town, so the cost and overall tone of the place varies based on season. Even in the offseason I’ve bumped up against tourist pricing. In the winter, expect to pay more here for food, lodging, and services than in other parts of Bulgaria. But relative to ski vacations on more renowned European mountains, Bansko is a steal. Daily lift tickets, for example, run about $30.
The bargain skiing has attracted mostly vacationers from neighboring countries, and a few handfuls of British expats have settled here for the year-round outdoor lifestyle on the cheap. With a new coworking space, cue the outdoorsy nomads on a bootstrapping budget.
Internet here has been smooth sailing. Good WiFi is available in most restaurants and cafes. The town has full 4G coverage and the main square’s WiFi is open and free.
At Coworking Bansko, Matthias and Uwe have it handled. They’re planning to install 200 Mb fiber optic internet. “Internet speed in Bulgaria is one of the highest in Europe,” notes Matthias. “It should be a nomad paradise.”
Hiking and summer fun
True to ski town form, Bansko thinks up creative ways to bring in visitors year-round. Every warm Mediterranean summer sees the arrival of some new music festival or attraction. This past summer, a big inflatable waterslide on the mountainside was a big hit with families.
For avid hikers and trekkers, Pirin Mountains National Park has trails and even a smattering of mountain huts to string together on a multi-day trekking adventure. You can DIY with a good map, or talk to Liz over at Pirin Adventures for help with planning and logistics.
Mountain biking is a favorite pastime for resident foreigners and locals alike. I tagged along on a weekly Sunday ride, organized through the MTB BanskoFacebook group. The group was patient with me, a beginner, but those who have spent a lot of time on a mountain bike will be in good company here.
Sarah, a travel blogger from the UK, is based here in Bansko with her husband Nigel. In an extensive post about about this ski town in the summer offseason, she writes “we have had a Bankso Summer and it’s been glorious.”
Skiing and winter fun
Lift ticket prices are right, but can Bansko compete with the better-known ski destinations in Europe? The Bansko ski resort’s lifts and snowmakers are still shiny and new. I’m here in September so I can’t report on terrain or conditions firsthand, but I’ve been asking around about the ski experience.
The mountain is a bit small (at least by my Colorado standards), with 14 lifts and about 70 kilometers of ski routes available. “Bansko is good for beginners and intermediate skiers, with a good amount of runs at that level,” says John, a Brit who owns a vacation property in Bansko and comes back to ski every year. “The pistes are well groomed and wide, which is comforting.”
Advanced skiers have to get a little more adventurous. Tight trees and some off-piste drops into the valleys are only advised to those with the skills and avy gear to handle it. John’s advice for experts is to get off-piste with a guide. “There is a large risk of avalanche and you really need to know where you’re going,” he says.
Non-skiers can have fun outside with snowshoes, snowmobiles, or wobble around on the outdoor ice rink. Or just walk around the Bavarian-style town center, which looks a bit like the village in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Weekend trips to beaches, villages, and cities
My first weekend in Bansko, I was already off to Greece. On a day trip, a couple of us reached Kavala — the nearest stretch of Greek coast — in three hours. Over a weekend, Thessaloniki isn’t much farther away.
My favorite weekend here involved a guided two-day bike ride through unpronounceable villages in the Bulgarian countryside. We took the train to the highest station in the Balkans, then descended on winding roads to the village of Ortsevo. The trip ended with a soak in the mineral-rich thermal baths in Banya. This is my idea of fun, and I have a feeling other city-weary nomads will agree.
The capital city of Sofia (3 hours by bus) is good for a fast-paced day trip, weekend, or longer. Also worth a visit is the city of Plovdiv, wooing digital nomads with urban lifestyle perks against a backdrop of ancient history and ruins. It’s 3 hours by bus (or a full day’s narrow-gauge train ride!). Caution: Plovdiv has been known to keep nomads for longer than they had originally planned. Which brings us to the next point …
Got $20k? That’s all it takes to become the proud owner of a one-bedroom condo in Bansko. After intense over-building and a real estate crash in 2007, the market is at rock bottom. For the foreigners I’ve met who have bought homes, they can’t imagine prices getting much lower. It’s worth considering as a base, at least for part of the year. International flights from nearby Sofia and Istanbul are abundant.
Also advantageous is that Bulgaria outside the Schengen visa zone, so for non-European passport holders, adding extra time to your initial three-month stay is less complicated than inside the Schengen zone.
A big draw for entrepreneurial types is the tax rate. Both income tax and business taxes have a flat rate of 10% — not bad for an EU member country.
Mark, a translator from England, has taken his mobile profession all over the world. He’s lived in nomad hot spots like Medellin and Chiang Mai. Finally ready for a base, he chose Bulgaria. “I bought a flat in Sofia and a studio in Bansko, for both city and outdoors,” says Mark, who gets out on his mountain bike several times a week when he’s in town in the summertime.
“I decided on Bulgaria after measuring things like quality of life and value for money, compared to all the other places I have lived.”
Matthias, Uwe, John, Liz, Sarah, Nigel, and Mark have invested in Bansko long-term, with property and/or businesses here to prove it. I haven’t bought a condo myself, but I’d love to come back for longer. For digital nomads, my advice is to spend several summer weeks or months divided between Sofia, Plovdiv, and Bansko. In the winter, go to Bansko for the skiing and stay for the coworking.
This post first appeared here.